The Franciscan Order: What Made Them Unique in the High Middle Ages?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

The Franciscan Order wasn’t the only religious order of the High Middle Ages in Europe. In fact, there were several attempts to reform monastic life during the High Middle Ages. The Cluniac monks dominated the 10th and 11th centuries, while the Cistercians dominated the 12th century. The Franciscan Order wasn’t even the only mendicant religious order of that period; there were the Dominicans as well. So, what made the Franciscans unique and appealing?

Graphic representation of the universal symbol of the Franciscan Order.
The coat of arms of the Franciscan Order, which is the official symbol of the Franciscans. It is made up of the cross, the arm of Christ, and the arm of Francis of Assisi. (Image: Piotr Jaworski/Public domain)

The Apostolic Life

Francis of Assisi, and the Franciscans who followed him, represented a new type of religious ideal, one that combined several different elements. One of these elements, and perhaps most important, was something called the vita apostolica, or the apostolic life.

The lives of Christ’s companions, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, were considered by Francis, as by others, to be especially meritorious. After all, they had known Christ. They had spoken with Christ. Presumably, their proximity to Christ had given them special insight into the sort of life that any good Christian should lead.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles, after Christ’s death, became wandering, poor preachers. That was what Francis of Assisi wanted to be, as well. But there was more to the Franciscan ideal than just the vita apostolica, however, powerful as that was.

Learn more about those who prayed – the monks.

The Franciscans Merged Duties of a Priest with Monastic Life

What made the Franciscans so very unique was the fact that they combined some of the functions that had previously been exercised by the secular clergy, by priests and bishops, with some of the aspects of monastic life, with the regular clergy, both of who lived according to a religious rule, or a regula.

A painting by Giotto di Bondone depicting the Franciscan Order receiving papal recognition.
The Franciscan Order receiving papal recognition in 1210 from Pope Innocent III. (Image: PHGCOM/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Like priests, Franciscans actively ministered to laypeople, something that monks did not do. They preached, they heard confessions, they gave out penances and performed burial rites. Like monks, however, they lived according to a religious rule.

Francis of Assisi, in fact, composed several rules for the Franciscan Order, modifying them over time. The First Rule of Saint Francis appeared in 1220, and he revised it again in 1223. Remember that neither the Cluniacs nor the Cistercians, who preceded the Franciscans, had lived according to a new rule. They followed the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Because the Franciscans were so successful at meeting the spiritual needs of townspeople, the new religious order grew at an astounding speed, even compared to Cistercian growth, which had been phenomenal. By 1300, there were about 1,400 Franciscan religious houses throughout all of Europe, and the numbers of individuals who had joined the Franciscans stood at around 28,000.

Townspeople welcomed and supported the Franciscans. They were willing to give money to them as they begged for a living, and eventually to give them houses in which to live. By supporting this new religious order, the townspeople could assuage or purge themselves of the guilt caused by their own greed, and by their own obsession with time.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement.

Franciscans Embraced Poverty

Francis of Assisi demanded that Franciscans embrace poverty, both individual poverty, and corporate poverty, that they should eschew greed as completely as humanly possible. Benedictine monks embraced individual poverty as well, but not corporate poverty was not part of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Monasteries, as corporations, could own as much as they wanted.

Francis of Assisi demanded that individual Franciscans possess nothing and that his Franciscan Order also possesses nothing: no houses, no churches, no land, nothing. They were to live day to day, based on what people gave them freely as a result of their begging activities. To amass the wealth of any kind for the future was to plan for the future, and thus, showed insufficient trust in God.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Francis of Assisi himself had an almost pathological hatred of money, the physical object of money. One story told about him concerns a young friar who had joined the order, and who had picked up a coin that someone had attempted to give the Franciscans, and tried to do this in Francis of Assisi’s presence.

The young monk picked up the coin not because he wanted to keep it, but because he wanted to give it back to the individual and say that they were not allowed to have this. Francis of Assisi was so incensed that one of his followers had touched money, that he ordered the friar to take the coin and to place it in the middle of a very large dung heap, using only his teeth to do so.

Not only did the Franciscans reject money as completely as possible in the early days, but they embraced corporate poverty, refusing to own anything.

Learn more about those who worked – the townspeople.

Franciscans Rejected Planning

The Franciscans rejected planning to an almost laughable degree. Their concern for the future was almost nil.

Painting of Saint Francis preaching to birds from the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Francis of Assisi would wander and preach to anyone or anything he encountered during that day, including birds in the wood. (Image: Master of Saint Francis/Public domain)

Francis of Assisi never operated according to much of a plan. He was famous for his impulsive behavior. He would wander in random directions, and preach to anyone or anything he encountered during that day. If he found that he had wandered out into the woods, and all he met were birds and squirrels, then he would preach to birds and squirrels. Clearly, that was what God had intended for him to do that day.

Nor was Francis of Assisi alone in rejecting planning so completely. One band of early Franciscan preachers, in order to free themselves of any sort of planning for their preaching tours, decided that the best way to decide where to go each morning was to spin themselves around until they were dizzy and collapsed. Once they were on the ground, in whatever direction their heads were pointing was where they were going to go that day. They simply trusted that God would bring them someone to whom they could preach.

The refusal of the early Franciscans to plan, to calculate sometimes got them into trouble. In 1219, the Franciscans decided that they were going to go to Germany, where they had never been before, and that they would launch a mission there. They decided they were not going to learn any German before going to Germany because that was to plan for the future. That was not to trust in God. God would do something to help them out.

They arrived in Germany, and had no luck at all communicating with the locals, and wound up hungry most of the time. They discovered, however, that by saying this funny word, Ja or ‘Yes’, occasionally, people would give them food.

The trick of simply answering, Ja, when people asked you things you didn’t understand backfired badly when local authorities asked them whether they were in fact heretics who had come to Germany to corrupt people, to which they answered, Ja, rubbing their stomachs. They were imprisoned, beaten, and sent packing.

The Franciscan rejection of money, wealth, and planning was very appealing to the townspeople. The Franciscans were everything that they were not, and by supporting the Franciscans, by giving them money when they were begging, they could least console themselves with the thought that while they were bad, they were doing some good in supporting individuals who were leading the sort of Christian life that they, because they were merchants, and because they lived in town, simply could not.

Common Questions about the Uniqueness of the Franciscan Order

Q: What did the Franciscan Order do?

The Franciscan Order was founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209 and received papal recognition in 1210. The Franciscan Order preached to the townspeople of the High Middle Ages in Europe, unlike the monks who followed the Rule of Saint Benedictine. The Franciscans also strictly followed a life of poverty and begged for their living.

Q: What are the Franciscan core values?

The Franciscans had several core values. One of the most important was something called the vita apostolica, or the apostolic life. They lived by the core ideals in the Acts of the Apostles. The Franciscans also actively preached, heard confessions, gave out penances, and performed burial rites, something that monks did not do. The Franciscans embraced poverty, both individual poverty, and corporate poverty, and rejected planning of any kind.

Q: What is the Franciscan way of life?

Francis of Assisi demanded that individual Franciscans possess nothing. They were to live day to day, based on what people gave them freely as a result of their begging activities. The Franciscans also rejected planning and had no concern for the future.

Q: Who founded Franciscan spirituality?

Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan Order in the early 13th century. It received papal recognition in 1210. It was a mendicant religious order.

Keep Reading
Why the Middle Ages Matter Today
Who Invented the Middle Ages?
Europe in the Middle Ages—Technology, Culture, and Trade in the Middle Ages